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Why public realm is the key to saving the high street

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‘Gap sites’ left by shop closures represent an opportunity for architects to bring town centres to life again, writes Sheppard Robson’s Claire Haywood

Claire haywood, partner at sheppard robson

In 2018 the future of retail was heavily scrutinised, with high-profile closures on the high street coupled with damning statistics painting a bleak picture of the sector. But, in the year ahead, what can we expect to see from bricks and mortar retail? And what does this mean for architects?

Both traditional retail development and town centres with multiple shopping centres could quickly become a thing of the past. While some retailers are in a strong position and online retailers are looking for a place on the high street, overall there is just too much outdated physical retail space for a world in which the psychology of shoppers has been transformed by e-commerce. These tectonic shifts have led shopping centres to move away from purely transactional sales spaces to more experiential amenities.

The need for new thinking has been backed by the government’s £675 million fund to improve high streets, with this cash allocated to transform town centres into ’community hubs’. This move recognises the vital civic nature of our town centres; and more specifically, how a sustainable future for retail will hinge on the sector’s ability to coalesce with residential and workplace development, as well as community services.

Over the last few years we have seen the first steps towards a new take on retail redevelopment. Shopping destinations were once defined by what brands they had in their stable, but, as we shift into a new era of more experiential retail, we are finding that high-quality public space is becoming the real anchor for retail development.

The increasing importance of public space is highlighted by the fact that large department stores – once the anchors of new retail development – are disappearing, leaving behind ’gap sites’. These holes in our urban fabric, when repurposed, can be an opportunity to create new pockets of public space, around which retail can be incorporated within thoughtful, mixed-use developments.

An architect’s vision will be vital in stitching together different uses

Many in our industry highlight the importance of creating ’a sense of place’ when talking about residential neighbourhoods, but it is also key for retail environments. And like residential design, successful places for shopping are about more than just allocating spaces for public use; it involves curating programmes of events, from food markets to art installations, as well as careful choreography of different uses. Savvy city councils and developers are encouraging these activities – around which the retail offer gravitates – driving footfall and bringing high streets and town centres to life. 

An architect’s vision will be vital in the process of generating this new lease of life and stitching together different uses. A macro perspective will envisage more than just retail frontages, and will think carefully about how ground-floor spaces of office and residential development can have a civic quality, engaging and connecting with the public space. The wholesale conversion of empty retail units into homes, which does not consider the impact of the public space around it, will do little to enliven our high street. This will lead to architects being tasked with answering questions such as: how can an office reception or a residential lobby engage with, and add to, the life of a high street or public space? 

The answer will be born out of some deft design moves that recognise how the lines between leisure and work are already blurred. With this in mind, public space – the glue that binds a number of uses together – will prove vital in reimagining the next generation of economically sustainable, mixed-use retail design. 

We are just at the start of a much more lateral approach to the sector, where many ideas will undoubtedly be mooted. But constructing a new vision for retail, high street and town centres will hinge on the quality of public space, placing architects and urban designers at the heart of a sector in need of fresh thinking and transformative ideas.

Claire Haywood is partner and retail lead at Sheppard Robson

Image: Future Retail Destinations sketch by Weston Williamson + Partners

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Readers' comments (1)

  • There's one 'deft design move' that's outside the remit of architects, planners, developers and local authorities - the need to ensure that the attractions of e-commerce aren't artificially inflated by an outdated fiscal regime that's favoring the likes of Amazon over the high street competition - that seems to have falsely distorted the economics of retail trade, and which can only be corrected if national politicians don't assume that an e-commerce free-for-all is good for their popularity.

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